How to help autistic pupils take control of their own mental health 

Six simple strategies to support pupils with autism to manage their own mental health and thrive in any school setting

Six simple strategies to support pupils with autism to manage their own mental health and thrive in any school setting

7 Apr 2024, 5:00

Many autistic young people experience mental health issues. Every autistic pupil is different so it’s really important to get to know the individual and understand techniques to support their wellbeing at school.  

Here are six strategies to help autistic pupils take charge of their own mental health.

Allow them to be themselves 

Being autistic comes with upsides and challenges in just the same way being non-autistic does. Creating a school culture that values autistic skills such as attention to detail and logic-based approaches will help autistic pupils feel more accepted.

The more autistic people have to mask and pretend they aren’t autistic, the greater the difficulties they are storing up for their mental health. No one should be asked to make eye contact or be judged for behaving differently to their peers.  

Help them identify the support they need 

For someone to take control of their mental health at school they need to understand what support they need and either be able to communicate this need in the moment, or access the support consistently on their own.

If a student is struggling, ask them curious questions, for example: “You seem worried, has something happened?”  Work with pupils to come up with a solution. Along the way it may help to support the pupil to identify what they are feeling; not all autistic pupils find it easy to know what emotions they are feeling, much less articulate them. Sometimes being heard is enough.  

Allow fidgets 

Fidgets are brilliant for helping autistic pupils concentrate, particularly if the pupil has ADHD too (and many will have both neurotypes). A fidget is a tool that enables some pupils to stay present in the class and listen to you, the teacher.

Without fidgets anchoring neurodivergent focus, it can drift away, like a balloon escaping out the window. Be open to their use and allow the pupil to choose their own fidget toy as not everyone finds the same fidgets helpful. Some may need different fidgets for different purposes. 

Consider learning or brain breaks 

Many autistic pupils will find it very helpful to have a learning or brain break. This could look like a quick game of Wordle or movement routines such as five high knees, four jumping jacks, three push-ups, two deep breaths, and one squat.  

For many children, even a short burst of sensory input (as regularly as possible) will help manage their stress and leave them able to focus more easily and feel less overwhelmed.  

Create quiet zones 

Sensory overwhelm is a real thing and it can be deeply unpleasant. This can be triggered by either a single thing (a loud, unexpected noise like a fire alarm) or accumulate over time as the effect of dealing with all the chaotic noises – plus an inability to filter out background noise – takes its toll.

Overwhelm can feel like a bout of intense anxiety, resulting in a need to escape a situation. It can be difficult to talk in these situations. Having a plan for what happens when an autistic student experiences this and a safe space for them to use consistently is vital to keep our autistic pupils in school.  

Peer-to-peer support 

Our ‘Autistic and OK’ programme, which includes materials for autistic pupils in year 10 and above to deliver peer-led sessions for younger pupils on the topics of anxiety, depression, OCD and bullying, has been developed by autistic young people. 

That’s because autistic pupils tell us that they sometimes feel more comfortable discussing mental health issues among their peers rather than with teachers. It’s important for schools to support that wherever and whenever they can to ensure that, whatever austistic pupils feel, they don’t feel it alone.

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